By Cheryl Ni
TV dramas are always thought to be a female-viewer-attracted industry, especially for soap operas. However, the same as other types of television programs, TV dramas represent and reinforce the majority’s ideology of modern western culture: patriarchy (Ingham, 2007). In 1975, McNeil tested a 7-point critique outline (as following), and he found out that most of them are true.
- Female characters are fewer in number and less central to the plot.
- Marriage and parenthood are considered more important to a woman’s than to a man’s life.
- Television portrays the traditional division of labour in marriage.
- Employed women are shown in traditionally female occupations, as subordinates to men and with little status or power.
- TV-women are more personally-and less professionally-oriented than TV-men.
- Female characters are more passive than male characters.
- Television dramatic programming ignores the existence of the women’s movement.
After more than thirty-five years, has anything changed? Taking the first hypothesis as example, the number of women shown on soap operas, which is type of the program considered less male-dominated, is still less than half of the number of men. The case is even worse when narrow the sample down to starring roles. According to Lauzen, female-starred programs are more likely to be scheduled in “lousy” time slots, which indicates that these shows will get lower ratings or shares among the viewers (2008). Nevertheless, gender roles’ stereotyping in the media always reflects the condition of people’s values and believes in a particular time period. Besides women’s being outnumbered in TV drama industry, there are many more aspects of the representation of women to discuss. This article will first analyze several ways, through which women are represented in TV dramas, such as physical appearance, family life, professional life and interpersonal relationships. And then there is a detailed discussion on the popular woman-oriented showDesperate Housewives, which achieved both “critical acclaim and commercial success” (Hill, 2010).
Although the situation is not as extreme as in earlier years, the portrayal of both male and female characters in TV dramas remains polarized, showing the dominant social value of patriarchy. Women are always related to words such as emotional, prudent, gentle, submissive, sensitive, etc.; men are usually pictured as rational, impulsive, ruthless, independent, aggressive, etc. There seems no grey area in-between—either feminine or masculine; otherwise the character will be considered as having a tendency of homosexuality.
To be specific, the representation of women’s body imaged has long been static. A young single woman tend to conform to the typical “girl next door” type – tall, slim, “conventionally beautiful” and she should have a friendly and happy personality, without much intelligence. Having a nice figure is necessary for measuring a woman’s worth in the show. Research shows that over-weighted actresses tend to receive negative comments from other male characters about their bodies, and “80% of these comments are followed by canned audience laughter” (Fouts, 2002).
In terms of the importance of family life, most female characters in TV dramas are set in domestic situation. Their ultimate life achievement is supposed to be getting married and giving birth to children, because the home setting is the place where women’s “expertise” is highly valued (Ingham, 2007). They usually feel content about their life, without a strong desire of involving in the outside-world issues. Another aspect should be considered is marital status. Whether a woman has been married or not is more likely to be revealed, no matter to what extent it relates to the plot. Even during female characters’ conversation, there are more gossips about family issues rather than other topics.
Different from marital status, female characters’ professional lives are usually ignored, or more often, they are portrayed as housewives who takes care of children and family chores everyday, but not ambitious at all in building a career. Even if women do work, they are often shown on TV in traditional feminine jobs such as teachers, secretaries and nurses, which kind of professions all require patience, carefulness, warm-heartedness. For the relatively small amount of women who try to further their professional lives, they “invariably seem to fail” (Ingham, 2007). For example Samantha from Eastenders left her husband to pursue a career in modelling, but was unsuccessful.
Samantha from Eastenders
In this way, female characters are often punished for pursuing their own careers at the expense of their boyfriends or husbands (Ingham, 2007). Of course there are also women in power in TV dramas, though the number is limited. However, these professional successful women are less favored than housewives; furthermore, women in power are usually portrayed to be villain, which indicates the discouragement of being such type of female.
It is also interesting to see how female character’s professional achievements correlate with their physical appearance. In the so-called nerdy sitcom the Big Bang Theory, the only scientific illiteracy main character is a beautiful blonde named Penny. On the contrary, another female role Leslie, who is also a highly educated nerdy scientist, is portrayed as not attractive at all.
Penny from The Big Bang Theory
Leslie from The Big Bang Theory
Another example is the show about advertising industry. Betty, a full-time housewife is shown as an elegant blonde (blonde again!) with nice figure; Peggy, an ambitious secretary who later becomes a copywriter, is much less attractive (she also has a secret son, whose father is a married man).
Betty from The Mad Men
Peggy from The Mad Men
Here draws the conclusion that female characters in TV dramas are either represented as pretty or intelligent; successful either in family life or workplace—there is hardly any way to accomplish both.
When it comes to interpersonal relationships, women become the dominant gender without question. In addition to some positive comments about women’s interpersonal skills, such as coping with the relationship with neighbors or soothing and comforting family members, there are also negative comments on the way women taking advantage of their sexuality or pregnancy to gain power or achieve certain things from men. It should be noticed that this is also an example of how successful women are portrayed as evil-minded. In general, women tend to shown as relying on their parents, boyfriends or husbands and their other female friends, because women are stereotyped as not being able to solve personal problem by themselves, and they usually need companionship that men don’t.
Desperate Housewives is based on a suburban area as an upper-middle-class community. The color tone indicates the façade of these family lives are as perfect as oil-paintings, which will makes you doubt the authenticity of these women’s seemingly happiness, thus introducing the keyword of the title: desperate.
Sex and the City
This show has also been called “Sex in the Suburbs” (Peyser and Jefferson, 2004), which creates the parallel with another successful blockbuster in TV industry, Sex and the City (1998-2004). Sex and the Cityintroduces whole new representations of women, especially living an urban life, on TV screen. Tropp argues that the show attempts to challenge conventional concepts of femininity and sexuality of women (2006). By watching Sex and the City, female viewers got new ideals and reset expectation for themselves.
The word “desperate” in the name of Desperate Housewives reflects common problems of women in modern societies, no matter what career they are pursuing, which life style they are living. As the show’s creator Marc Cherry claims, “all these women have made some kind of choice in their life and are in various stage of regretting it” (Peyser and Jefferson, 2004).
As the mainstream family structure changing in the 1950s, the term housewife became widely used. According to Johnson and Lloyd, it took on derogatory or negative connotations with the second-wave feminism that distinguish itself from housewives (2004). In The Second Sex, radical feminist Simone de Beauvior identifies housewives as “representative of all that is wrong with women’s lives” and criticizes that housewives’ engaging in repetitive family chores “prevent their pursuit of self-actualization or self-realization” (Hill, 2010). Also, in typical domestic soap operas, housewives are shown as sexless because of the fact that they have a family. Their husbands rarely show more intimacy than a hug and “a peck on the cheek” (Ingham, 2007).
Desperate Housewives’ title sequence depicts a series of iconic images of women throughout history. There are traditional family-oriented women, as well as representatives from “the history of female angst” (Hill, 2010). The images chosen include Adam and Eve; Egyptian wall paintings; Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife; American Gothic; Campbell’s Soup Can; and Lichtenstein-inspired images. The gender issue behind the show is stressed by the pop-cultural iconic images.
There are five desperate housewives facing five different kinds of middle-aged crisis in the show. Bree van de Kamp is the one whose representation shows the most connection with a housewife’s gender role.
The initial appearance of Bree during Mary Alice’s wake, Bree’s immaculate image creates a sharp contrast with those of Lynette and Gabrielle, other two wives. Where Lynette and Gabrielle were represented as trapped in stressful situations, Bree looks ridiculously perfect. Later, viewers will figure out that her life is not as perfect as she performed at all. His husband cannot live under such flawless family environment, and he wants a divorce. Unsurprisingly, Bree’s way of coping with marriage crisis is still performing, pretending the bad thing has never happened. Here are two examples of Bree’s skilled performance.
However, there are also moments when Bree does reveal her inner feelings. No matter how instant her sorrow disappeared, no matter how hard she tried to conceal it, it does exist.
According to Turow and Gans (2002), TV dramas may be even more powerful than new programs, in terms of its impact on viewers. Dramas also shape the public’s impression on some particular institutions. Combining with compelling plots and attractive characters that audience cares about, TV dramas do change people’s view of life to some extent.
After the great success of ER, reports showed that there was a significant growth of female students who applied for medical school.
Ingham (2007) also did a series of interviews with people of different genders, regarding the representation of women embodied through television. There is one fifty-year-old man believed that “the numbers of women involved in television programs are representative of the number of women in the population,” which is clearly not the situation in real world. Therefore improves that men do consider television representations of women to be more true than do the women, and these media portrayals still affect peoples views of what women are really like.
In today’s society, the role of women keeps changing, so does the representation of women in TV dramas. The characters should be consistent with the women image in real life, in order to accommodate their changing role in society. Taking sexless housewife (mentioned above) as example, nobody know the image of housewife can be altered to modern women like Lynette or Gabrielle in Desperate Housewives. The study of female’s gender role should not be isolated from women in real lives. Audience always prefer those shows that looks real.
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